Democracy in the Woods: Environmental Conservation and Social Justice in India, Tanzania, and Mexico by Prakash Kashwan (review)
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Reviewed by
Kashwan, Prakash. 2017. Democracy in the Woods: Environmental Conservation and Social Justice in India, Tanzania, and Mexico. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

How can we explain when and why states strengthen, weaken, or maintain the status quo for peasant land rights? According to Prakash Kashwan, it is not simply a question of getting the incentives right or improving capacity for implementation. Instead, the answer depends on the historical, contextual evolution of forestland institutions, coupled with the everyday practice of democratic politics.

In this exceptionally detailed and ambitious study, Kashwan sets out to explain the divergence of forestland institutions in three cases—India, Mexico, and Tanzania—by crafting a rich historical account of the interactions between colonial legacies, populist politics, and contemporary global environmental politics. The core puzzle of the book is that states making seemingly similar economic-environmental trade-offs when deciding how to govern forestlands end up with divergent—and often counterintuitive—institutions. Critical of institutional analyses that exclude politics, where factors such as the effects of political mobilization and state welfare programs are considered contextual factors exogenous to institutional analysis, Kashwan adopts a power-centric approach. The goal is to explain three types of divergences: statutory protection of peasant land rights, delegation of forestland control, and domestic responses to international policies. The framework deployed, the political economy of institutions, brings two types of representation politics into institutional analysis—the strategic contingencies that shape elite incentives for representation and the mechanisms of political intermediation—to advance an argument that elected officials play a unique role as political intermediaries in addressing forest conflict. As such, Democracy in the Woods is as much about the politics of representation as it is about forest politics and their outcomes.

The argument unfolds in three main parts. First, through an extraordinarily detailed history of the precolonial and colonial forestland regimes in each case, Kashwan demonstrates how the colonial legacies of territorial control continue to [End Page 155] shape contemporary forest institutions. Where forests were seen as an important source of power for nation-states, as in India and Tanzania, forest institutions have served to weaken the voice of peasants by creating policy-making monopolies in government agencies. Where forests were historically seen as a resource to be used for the production of social goods, however, as in Mexico, peasant control over forestlands has remained strong and has contributed to their enhanced political voice in forest governance. In the second part of the book, a quasi-ethnographic approach to land reform politics illustrates how states can capitalize on competing visions of land rights to align and reinforce economic and environmental forest agendas. For example, instead of responding to peasant demands for tenure security in India and Tanzania, political elites adopt technocratic approaches to address forest conflicts as a means to both enhance their power and weaken peasant representation. Kashwan then brings these two perspectives together through comparative policy analysis to demonstrate how domestic mechanisms of political intermediation—how interests are aggregated into or excluded from policy processes—explain how Tanzania and India have resisted institutional reforms to share REDD+ benefits with forest communities, to continue to limit these communities' political voice. In contrast to these two states' technocratic approaches to forest governance, which removes democratic representation from forest policy-making, Kashwan finds that Mexico's system of corporatism has resulted in enhanced political voice for forest communities in REDD+.

For scholars of global environmental politics, this book not only articulates the importance of comparative work for uncovering historically contingent variables that shape institutional possibilities, but also situates such research in the broader global context of international environmental agreements that propel many developing countries into particular institutional trajectories. For REDD+ proponents, perhaps one of the most significant contributions that Democracy in the Woods makes is the argument that politics—not just institutional design—matters. By showing how technocratic approaches to REDD+ contribute to reduced representation in forest policy-making, Kashwan forces REDD+ proponents to confront its political power in shaping democratic practice in forest communities.

While Democracy in the Woods presents a highly detailed and rich account of the forestland regimes in India, Mexico, and Tanzania, at times the analysis is...